HNK Rijeka were right in the mix for the Croatian title, just six points behind the almost unbeatable Dinamo Zagreb. Their efforts had once again been led by free-scoring striker Zijad Handzic, while the club’s owners were reportedly worried by manager Vladimir Latunov walking away at the end of his contract in the summer.
Handzic’s form saw all sorts of big teams show an interest and two Chinese sides met his £20 million minimum fee clause. With that happening, Latunov went in search of a replacement and found one in his former Galatasaray striker Nahuel Ferreyra. The Argentinian scored 39 league goals for Latunov in Turkey before being criminally underused by his replacement, but he signed for £2.5 million plus add-ons.
He also added defensive strength and experience in former Chelsea centre-back Andreas Christensen for £600,000 and 19-year-old midfielder Zlatko Zdravkovic. However, Handzic then rejected the Chinese sides, which semi-forced Latunov into going to a 4-2-4 formation he’d used to devastating effect in Hungary. One player that did depart was young winger Borna Glasnovic, who could barely get a game but attracted a massive £12.5 million bid from Lokomotiv Moscow.
Croatian League resumes
A two-month wait for football ended as Bijelo Brdo came to town. And it didn’t take long to get up and running as Kingsley Coman scored after 16 seconds! Handzic got his customary goal just before the break and Coman scored again just after it. Ferreyra settled in very nicely, smashing home a debut goal from a Coman pass then creating Handzic’s second. And a 5-0 win was a very nice way to introduce the new formation to the team.
The formation tweak seemed to be benefiting the wide players as Antonio Marin and Coman both scored before Handzic got his goal to defeat Sibonik 3-1. The same scoreline followed at fourth-place Osijek on the same day that Hajduk held Dinamo 1-1. Dusan Bezdicka was beginning to settle into life in Croatia, which showed as he scored both goals in a 2-1 win at Gorica, who’d replaced Osijek in fourth. The next day Hajduk lost at home to Osijek, which took Rijeka 16 points clear of third place. Ferreyra then bagged a brace to seal a 4-2 win at home to Lokomotiva at the same time as Dinamo drew at Gorica.
That closed the gap to just two points as Rijeka welcomed the leaders to Kantrida in Latunov’s 400th match in management. Rijeka started the game well and, approaching the end of the first half, they’d had seven shots to Dinamo’s zero. But out of nowhere, the referee and VAR awarded the visitors a dubious penalty. Lovro Majer stepped up but Károly Májer dived to his left to save the spot kick. Ten minutes after the break, Bezdicka was apparently brought down in the box and VAR was again consulted and, this time, awarded the hosts a penalty. Handzic stepped up and made no mistake, blasting home a huge opener. Májer continued to excel, including making a huge double save on 77 minutes that earned him a clean sheet and 8.2 rating and his team a massive 1-0 win that took them top of the league with 12 games remaining.
Europa Conference League
Latunov wasn’t particularly interested in competing in the third tier of European competition, especially as the first leg of the first knockout round against Rangers came before a big clash with Dinamo. However, despite nine changes and loads of youngsters making debuts, his team somehow still beat the Scots 3-1 at home! He went a step further and made 11 changes for the away leg, which came after the home win over Dinamo, that included playing a ‘greyed out’ goalkeeper. And they unsurprisingly went out with a 5-0 thumping.
12 games from glory
With a first win over Dinamo in the bag, Latunov knew the title was now in Rijeka’s hands if they could keep their good form going. The first league game after that big win was at newly promoted Varazdin, where Marin created the opener for Flávio Henrique then curled in a superb free-kick before a late Handic goal wrapped up an easy 3-0 win.
Strangely, they then faced managerless Sesvete – who were sixth after finishing fourth last season – away and home in consecutive games. Flávio Henrique, who’d been in sensational form that won him the February player of the month, smashed home the opener after two minutes of the away game. Sesvete quickly responded by a Handzic brace took him to 30 goals for the season and sealed a 3-1 win. They again dominated and missed a host of chances before than man Handzic stepped up with a quickfire brace for a 2-0 win, and with that he equalled last season’s tally of 29 goals.
Remarkably, Handzic’s goals in the first Sesvete game saw him become Rijeka’s all-time record league goalscorer with an incredible 56 goals in 56 games. That broke the record of Ahmad Sharbini who played for the club until 2009. He then broke his own Croatian First League goalscoring record from last season with his 30th league goal of the campaign in a dominant 3-1 win at home to Gorica. And that form saw Real Madrid show interest in him!
A trip to rivals Hajduk followed, against whom Rijeka have won eight of the last 10 clashes. But that wasn’t to be extended as a very dubious late penalty saw them go behind then lose 2-0 to hand the advantage back to Dinamo, who continued to batter every other team in the league.
Rijeka recovered to thump bottom of the league Bijelo Brdo 4-0, which could and should have been at least 10, and secure at least a top-two finish. They ran riot at Sibenik to lead 5-0 at half-time, thanks to Handzic and Bezdicka braces and a Marin assist hat-trick, and win 6-0. Then led 4-1 at Lokomotiva at half-time and won 4-1 thanks to another Handiz double.
Those goals set Rijeka’s all-time league goal record of 79 with four games still remaining. They got a break from an unlikely source as Hajduk won 3-1 at home to Dinamo, which they took advantage of by beating Osijek 3-0 with another Handzic brace.
Handzic bagged his 40th of the season in a 3-2 win over Varazdin, which should have been far more comfortable hiven they had 28 shots to nine. But, that teed up a massive trip to Zagreb…
Massive title decider
Rijeka made the trip to Maksimir sitting top of the league on 86 points with Dinamo one back on 85. They did so without the injured Ferreyra, so Leandro Martinez came in. A tense opening saw Dinamo on top but Rijeka got themselves in front with a fine strike from Bezdicka, then Handzic doubled the tally on 54 minutes. But Majer got one back in injury time and Latunov feared the worst. But Bezdicka calmed any nerves straight after the break and Handzic also doubled his tally with 20 minutes remaining.
Rijeka were Champions of Croatia for the first time since 2017 and only the second time in their history!
That was followed by a final day win then the Croatian Cup Final against rivals Hajduk, which Rijeka had reached playing reserve 11s. Rijeka started brightly and Ferreyra got the deserved goal then Handzic doubled the lead early in the second half. But Hajduk fought back to 2-2, only for their former player Marin to score a late winner and complete the Rijeka double!
Rijeka’s title win saw them set a new team record for most wins (29) and highest points total (92), which tied Dinamo’s all-time record points tally set in 2007.
The undoubted star of the season, again, was Handzic. The Bosnian striker scored a remarkable 43 goals in 40 games in all competitions with an average rating of 7.47. He broke his own league goalscoring record (39, which was 10 more than last season) and set new average rating (7.57) and player of the match (10) records. That goal tally was enough for Handzic to win the European Golden Shoe ahead of Kylian Mbappé! Unsurprisingly, he also won Croatian First League Player of the Year and is now wanted by Real, Barcelona and PSG.
But this season’s signings were crucial in leading Rijeka to the title as the other key performer was Marin, who scored 12 and got a club record 16 assists. While Bezdicka scored 12 and got six assists, Ferreyra scored eight and got six assists in just 15 games, and Coman scored nine and got eight assists. Handzic won fans’ player and young player of the season, Marin got signing of the season and Ferreyra won goal of the season.
Moving on from Rijeka
Latunov’s contract at Rijeka expired in the summer of 2029. So, while he’d enjoyed his time in Croatia and he really like the Rijeka team he’s built, it was time to push on with his Soviet Surge. He was free to look around for new opportunities with the Croatian title added to that of Poland, Turkey, Hungary and Czech Republic.
His options included Romanian side FCSB before Ukrainian side Vorskla and Krasnodar offered him interviews. Vorskla offered him the job, but he delayed for a week to consider his options. But Krasnodar hired someone else before FCSB came in with an interview and offered him the job.
Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov begins life in country seven of his Soviet Surge in Romania!